The 26th Sunday After Pentecost November 17, 2013


The Frustration of Sin, the Joy of Obedience

Ecclesiastes 5:10-20

Scripture Readings

Hebrews 4:1-13
Mark 10:23-31


756 [TLH alt. 345], 745 [TLH alt. 15], 761 [TLH alt. 357], 779(1,4) [TLH alt. 32]

Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him(Colossians 3:16-17). Amen.

Dear fellow Christians:

Some time ago I watched a particularly stubborn bird trying to gain entrance into our house. The problem was that he was trying to enter through what must have looked like an open window, which in fact was a very clean window that was closed. Again and again he flew into the glass and each time he was met with the same sickening thud. Now, I don’t pretend to know what goes on in the mind of a bird, but it was clear that this little guy had determined that the inside of our house was just about the greatest place on earth, and he was bound and determined to get there.

So he tried the same thing over and over with the same result. Occasionally, he would pause for a moment, clinging to the sill of the window and peering inside. It was almost as if he were re-evaluating the prize. Each time he seemed to make up his mind that, yes, inside was where he wanted to be. His little head and body were taking a pounding, but evidently he decided it was worth the prize that awaited. Eventually, he gave up. That was a good thing for him because nothing good would have come had he made it inside.

As I watched the silly little feather-ball slam himself over and over against the impenetrable glass, struggling mightily to gain that which would undoubtedly have made his life even more miserable, it suddenly became rather obvious that this is exactly how you and I must appear at times to our Heavenly Father. How pathetic we must look when we repeatedly beat ourselves up for some silly little thing that, if we ever did attain it, would probably destroy us.

Keep this mental image in your mind as you hear today’s text. Here our God offers us a reminder of just how important it is to analyze our lives from time to time—especially our goals, desires, and aspirations—and to reevaluate the direction our life is taking. Our text is found in Ecclesiastes chapter five, beginning with verse 10:

He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver; Nor he who loves abundance, with increase. This also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them; So what profit have the owners except to see them with their eyes? The sleep of a laboring man is sweet, whether he eats little or much; But the abundance of the rich will not permit him to sleep. There is a severe evil which I have seen under the sun: Riches kept for their owner to his hurt. But those riches perish through misfortune; When he begets a son, there is nothing in his hand. As he came from his mother’s womb, naked shall he return, to go as he came; And he shall take nothing from his labor which he may carry away in his hand. And this also is a severe evil—just exactly as he came, so shall he go. And what profit has he who has labored for the wind? All his days he also eats in darkness, And he has much sorrow and sickness and anger. Here is what I have seen: It is good and fitting for one to eat and drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labor in which he toils under the sun all the days of his life which God gives him; for it is his heritage. As for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, and given him power to eat of it, to receive his heritage and rejoice in his labor—this is the gift of God. For he will not dwell unduly on the days of his life, because God keeps him busy with the joy of his heart.

So far the very words of our merciful God. Our God has preserved his Word down through the ages so that you and I could be saved. He has also given that Word to us so that we could learn to avoid the pain and suffering that we routinely and foolishly bring upon ourselves by our disobedience. We ask our God to again bless us through our study of His truth as we pray: “Sanctify us by Your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth!” Amen.

So much of the hurt that we suffer is self-imposed. So many of our wounds are self-inflicted. It’s a wonder that God doesn’t just give up on us and abandon us to our own foolishness, our own sinful, selfish passions. Wouldn’t it be great if someone would just take us aside and tell us—or remind us—just how it really is? Wouldn’t it be just exactly what we need if someone who has “been there and done that” could lay it all out for us and give it to us straight?

Someone has. His name is Solomon and in addition to a couple of Psalms and a love song, he left us with timeless, priceless guidance for every single Christian of every age in the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.

Solomon had seen it all and done it all. He started in such a great place as the heir to his father David’s throne and as the recipient of the blessing and good favor of God Himself. But then Solomon took all of that and, at least for a time, sorely abused the gifts he had been given.

Wait, but didn’t Solomon just gain more? How is it that we can say that he abused God’s gifts? Because contentment, which is what he seemed to start out with, just can’t share an apartment with raw, unbridled desire. The first is all about God, the second is all about you.

If you are familiar at all with Solomon and his life’s story, you are probably already familiar with the summary of his life. Every single thing he wanted he got—knowledge, wealth, popularity, wisdom, and more wives and concubines than any one man could possibly want in hundreds of lifetimes. Sadly, he followed all of those wives into their pagan idolatry and drifted from that good place he had once enjoyed.

But that would be an over-simplified look at the life of Solomon. He wasn’t just like some modern-day lottery winner who let fame and fortune ruin him. God used Solomon not just to warn us about the dangers of wine, women, and song; He raised up Solomon and preserved his story in order to teach us something about our own lives—where we are, where we want to be, and to what we want to aspire. In short, God gave us a timeless message with universal application.

In Proverbs, Solomon laid out the path of wisdom. The Book is much more than just a collection of the wise sayings of his day. It was and is the divine blueprint for a full and happy life. Those who listen to the words and actually follow the advice there offered will find themselves on a very pleasant path.

In Ecclesiastes, the Holy Spirit through Solomon lays out the inevitable result of adopting any other course. More than that, He emphasizes the utter futility and emptiness of any existence that lacks the necessary relationship with our Savior-God. Do you remember the account of the rich young man who came to Jesus and went away sorrowful because he loved riches more than Jesus? (cf. Matthew 19:16ff) It is a perfect example of how hollow and empty even an outwardly exemplary life can be without a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Why is this so critical? Why so universally important? Because by nature every single human being has dreams and aspirations, and those dreams and aspirations almost always revolve around or focus on that which holds the potential for tremendous spiritual harm.

That means that the Book of Ecclesiastes, including also our text, represents both a warning and a source of great comfort and direction to every single child of God today. Who hasn’t experienced feelings of “missing out” somehow? Who hasn’t dreamed, at one time or another, of bigger and better? Who hasn’t looked longingly at that which seems always to be just beyond your reach? Have you ever, for example, been to a concert where the performer receives thunderous applause and the adoration of the crown and wondered what that would be like? Have you seen folks with unlimited financial resources and wondered what it would be like to never have to worry about money, or what it would feel like to be able to buy absolutely anything that your heart desired? Have you ever wished you had enough money to be able to shower your family and friends with whatever their hearts desired and to experience the joy and satisfaction that such largess would bring? What would it be like to have people pay just to watch you perform, or to be instantly recognized wherever you go and to have folks ask you to write your name on a piece of paper and to know that they would forever treasure that piece of paper?

Solomon lived just such a life and in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes he tells all of us who haven’t experienced such things just exactly what it is like. By the time he wrote Ecclesiastes he is believed to have been an old man, having travelled from the horizon of his birth to the horizon of his old age, and shares something with each of us about that journey. Solomon wanted to leave you—who will be tempted to spend a lifetime frustrating yourself by trying to gain what he was given—he wants to leave you with the sort of advice that only someone who’s been there can really offer.

His timeless advice? Don’t bother. Really, don’t bother. All is vanity. All is pointless, useless, hollow. It’s all a grand deception—a vapor without substance. It’s the carrot and stick that Satan uses to drive us where he wants us to go. Solomon begins our text with this simple summary: “He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver; Nor he who loves abundance, with increase. This also is vanity.[v.10]

The root problem is that mankind naturally feels a void of sorts, an emptiness that he cannot quite understand or explain and a longing for something more, never quite sure of what that something is. Yet since we want that void filled, we grasp for all those things that seem like they might somehow satisfy that intangible longing. All of this is the inevitable result of mankind’s fall into sin. Sinful man knows instinctively that something is wrong, that something is missing. What escapes natural man is the realization that the problem is our broken relationship with God.

The cruel irony is that the longing is never really satisfied, but it seems at times like we are almost there—or that we are getting there. Power, prestige, wealth, popularity, pleasure—all seem only to almost satisfy because those things give us a temporary thrill or a momentary respite from the longing. They are like drugs that make you yearn for just a bit more, which will then certainly be enough—only it never is.

Solomon here gives us the absolute, rock-solid, bottom line: those things never get you where you want to go; they never fulfill or satisfy the longing. In fact, he gives an example of something I suspect many of you have experienced: “When goods increase, they increase who eat them; So what profit have the owners except to see them with their eyes?[v.11] Has this ever happened to you? It has to me. You just get to the point where you think you are starting to get ahead of the game and something comes along to wipe it all out. The bonus you got at work is consumed by unexpected car repairs. The extra money from that second job gets poured into unanticipated medical bills. The raise at work just barely covers rising expenses for food and gas, and that inheritance that you had anticipated for so long was somehow only enough to preserve what we already had.

The profound message Solomon wants to convey to us is belied by its very simplicity: “Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot.[v.18 ESV] The world stands with mouths agape at such a message. It’s certainly neither what they wanted nor expected when seeking fulfillment in life. They want to believe in as though “getting there” or “making it” is actually achievable and that once there “happily ever after” is possible. According to their way of thinking, “making it” isn’t possible. According to God’s way, however, it is.

The truth is, you and I can only live quietly contented in this life because of the forgiveness that is ours through faith in Jesus Christ. Our greatest joy is, therefore, not our own obedience, but the perfect obedience of our Savior, which is now credited to our account. Our sins won’t be forgiven some day, they are forgiven right now. Solomon summed up his lifetime of experience in the final chapter of Ecclesiastes: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man(Ecclesiastes 12:13 ESV).

The best news of all is that we now struggle to live obedient lives not in fear of punishment but in the joy of forgiveness. Not to pay God for a debt we still owe but to thank Him for a debt He has already paid in full. We are, right now, God’s beloved children—heirs of eternal life. All has been done for us and has been given to us by our Savior Jesus. Life then on this earth is about thanking our God with the time that He gives us. Nothing in this life could ever be worth risking the eternity that Jesus Christ has earned for us when He paid the sin-debt we had accumulated.

This simple Gospel message reminds us, moment by moment, that the only way we can possibly “miss out” during our time of grace on earth is if we throw away what God has given us in Christ Jesus in favor of some Satanic mirage. From the perspective of Heaven we will never regret not earning more, or lost fame, or the fact that we were never important or famous in the eyes of the world. We will there only regret the opportunities for humble, faithful service that we missed, the contentment we forfeited, and the frustrations we brought upon ourselves.

God the Holy Spirit keeps us grounded and focused. You are saved by grace through faith. You are not “settling” for something less. You have been given the very best life has to offer. Let no one convince you otherwise. Amen.

—Pastor Michael J. Roehl

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